The politics of legal empowerment: legal mobilisation strategies and implications for development

Research reports and studies
June 2014
Pilar Domingo and Tam O'Neil
Legal empowerment occurs when poor or marginalised people use the law, legal systems and justice mechanisms to improve or transform their social, political or economic situations. The concept of legal empowerment emerged within the development community in the early 2000s from a critique of the ‘rule of law orthodoxy’ and its perceived top-down technical assistance approach to justice sector reform. By contrast, legal empowerment approaches are explicitly interested in the agency and priorities of marginalised people, and understanding how they can use the law to advance their interests. As a concept, it was important in reorienting the attention of the international community towards the experience of the ‘end-users’ of law and justice programmes. At the same time, the use of the law and legal systems by disadvantaged people to contest the unfair distribution of power and resources is a real-world phenomenon that predates and exists independently of international law and justice assistance. These activities are rooted in context-specific histories of how law, politics and development intersect to shape the distribution of resources and power.

To date, understanding of legal empowerment has remained confined to a relatively small group of legal experts and within a narrow silo of justice support as part of international assistance efforts. But, as this wider legal activism continues in countries around the world, its relevance to development outcomes is becoming much clearer; this includes use of the law and justice mechanisms to expand access to public goods and services or to reduce marginalisation and inequality. This overview summarises recent evidence on legal empowerment and highlights political economy perspectives on what it will take to realise greater empowerment for those who need it most.